RIDING THE BENCH

Arafat Charges Barak With Neglecting Palestinian Track

Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat has felt increasingly sidelined of late by renewed Israeli-Syrian peace talks, and begged for a meeting with US President Bill Clinton to complain about the bench splinters. With the Syrian track on an unexpected recess, he finally received Clinton’s undivided attention on January 20 and lobbied hard for American intervention in the wobbly Oslo peace process, which has three weeks left to conclude a framework agreement outlining terms for a permanent settlement of the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a sign of their displeasure with the pace of talks, Palestinian leaders again are threatening to unilaterally declare statehood soon, and Arafat used his audience with Clinton to also solicit US recognition of a Palestinian state.

SIDETRACKED: As US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright prepared for her Middle East mission in early December, her goal on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track was conflict avoidance, not resolution. Her advance team made clear Albright intended to focus on the framework agreement, due on February 13. By implication, this meant she sought to avoid being dragged down by the PA into lingering disputes over the second IDF interim redeployment from 5% of Judea/Samaria, already several weeks overdue, and a stern Palestinian threat to boycott final-status Oslo talks until Israel halted all settlement activity.

Then, by the time Albright met face-to-face with Arafat on December 8th, the dramatic breakthrough in Damascus had stolen the show and she spent much of her time trying to allay Arafat’s fears he had been supplanted by the suddenly aroused Israeli-Syrian peace track. Overall, it was a three-fold disappointment for the PLO leader.

The stickiest item left in interim talks, the second pullback had been delayed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak since November 15 after Arafat rejected the areas offered as barren and non-contiguous. Instead, the PA demanded populated Arab villages bordering east Jerusalem - Abu Dis, Azariya, and A-Ram - to gain a foothold in the professed capital of a future Palestinian state before final-status talks. Albright, following the recent precedent of Clinton, declined to intervene.

On the eve of her visit to Jerusalem, the PA also was agitated by reports of an increasing rate of new housing starts since Barak took office and threatened a paralysis in final-status talks unless all Israeli construction activity in YESHA was halted at once. According to Peace Now data released to greet Ms. Albright, in his first five months as PM, Barak presided over 3100 new tenders in YESHA, a higher rate than his Likud predecessor Binyamin Netanyahu. The housing figures fueled a Palestinian uproar on the always prickly issue, and the PA demanded that Albright pressure Israel to halt settlement expansion while final-status talks are underway.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat noted the Americans already branded settlement activity "destructive" to the peace process, but now the PA wanted concrete action. PA officials said the increased construction spelled the demise of their dream of statehood in all the "West Bank." Erekat said, "This is the largest settlement expansion since 1967... It will lead to the collapse of the peace process."

At first, Barak officials blamed the PA for creating an artificial crisis over settlements in order to drag the Americans deeper into their disputes. Then, although Albright gave Israel wide latitude by urging the PA to work out their differences over settlements directly at the bargaining table, Barak outlined terms for a freeze on new construction pending completion of the framework agreement. He explained the dramatic about-face, saying, "It makes no sense, especially at this time... to launch major new projects when it is clear that they create friction that disturbs Israel’s [relations] with the rest of the world."

But the PA rejected the generous offer as a half-measure and perhaps even a "trick," insisting that it must include a stoppage on all work in progress in YESHA, and not just new bids or start-ups. In doing so, Arafat squandered a chance to declare a highly-symbolic victory before his people. In contrast, Albright welcomed the Israeli offer, and implied the Palestinians were wrong for stonewalling the talks with so little time left until deadline.

Barak’s new position did create a dilemma for him, however, as he promised the PA the same thing pledged to the YESHA council and their closest coalition allies - "no surprises" regarding settlements. On the right, there was a mixture of reactions, likely due to the vague nature of its full impact and the PA’s initial rejection of the offer.

Finally, facing the downside of her success in Damascus, Albright found herself having to reassure Arafat over the re-instated Syrian talks, echoing Barak’s message that "one track is not being favored over another and actions will not be taken in one at the expense of the other." To soften the impact, Albright delivered Arafat the coveted invitation to the White House in January. But the Palestinians suddenly realized they were now competing with Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad for the attention of Barak and Clinton, both busily preparing for a Washington summit with a high-level delegation from Damascus.

WHAT’S THE RUSH?: Ignoring sound advice, Barak had always favored conducting simultaneous talks with the Palestinians and Syrians, leaving analysts busy surmising who now stood to gain or lose the most. The Palestinians are concerned that if Barak reaches an agreement with Syria, he will be less willing to make concessions on the Palestinian track. But several Palestinian commentators suggested rapid progress on the Syrian track could set valuable precedents for the Palestinians in the long run, including yet another model of full Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands (Sinai, Golan), and the uprooting of Israeli communities. In addition, international pressure would then focus on Palestinian demands as the last act needed to secure a lasting peace. Conversely, others felt Syria’s agreement to extensive security arrangements on the Golan may not bode well for Palestinian hopes to deny the IDF a presence in Judea/Samaria.

The rapid developments did embolden the Palestinians to call for the same thing the Syrians were demanding - a full withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borders. However, it was flatly rejected by Barak, arguing the "Green Line" was never an internationally-recognized borders. Thereafter, Palestinian negotiators showed up for final-status talks, but refused for some time to discuss any issue but settlements until Barak agreed to a complete freeze.

Engrossed in talks with Syria, Barak twice postponed meetings with Arafat, while the PA leader bemoaned Israel’s "permanent colonization" of the Bethlehem area - claiming it was meant to spoil Millennium celebrations - and again threatened to declare statehood unilaterally. Clinton called Arafat to encourage him that if sufficient progress was made in final-status talks, the two sides would be invited to a "Camp David-style" summit in the US just ahead of the February deadline for a framework agreement.

Barak finally found time for a secret late-night meeting with Arafat in late December, but the two were unable to bring closure to several disagreements on interim and final-status issues, particularly the delayed 5% withdrawal. Arafat made clear that, if Barak agreed to consult with him about the areas to be included in the third interim pullback due in January, he would drop his objections to the maps for the second withdrawal. To break the logjam, Barak eventually agreed the matter could be discussed in interim talks, but reserved the final right to designate areas to be turned over to PA rule.

Originally meant as a "goodwill gesture" at the start of Ramadan, Israel then released 26 Palestinian prisoners on December 29. Most had served a substantial portion of their sentences for non-fatal terrorist actions against Jews or attacks on Arab "collaborators," but two convicted murderers were among those set free. The next day, 7 Palestinians from east Jerusalem were also released, despite legal concerns it might imply acceptance of Palestinian claims to the disputed sector. This brought the total of Palestinian security prisoners freed since September’s Sharm accords to 383.

SUBURBAN WOES: From far away in the Shepherdstown talks with Syria, Barak finally approved a compromise in early January which allowed the 5% withdrawal from Judea/Samaria to proceed. The advance was enabled, in part, by an agreement that the third interim withdrawal would total 6.1%, a figure much larger than the 1% pledged by Netanyahu in the Wye Accords. But when neither side would comment on exactly what swayed the Palestinians to alter their stance, rumors flared that Barak indeed had promised the PA areas surrounding Jerusalem. The YESHA Council warned Barak not to threaten Israeli sovereignty over the capital, and convened an emergency Greater Jerusalem forum to prevent the move.

Barak now faces difficult decisions, as most of the areas left to transfer to the PA are either around Jerusalem or close to Jewish communities. PA officials are suggesting Barak is waiting to hear Palestinian offers in the framework talks concerning Jerusalem before agreeing to hand over Abu Dis, where Arafat already has built a parliament building to serve as his seat of government. They remain adamant, however, that Jerusalem suburbs will not be accepted as an alternative to east Jerusalem itself.

In contrast, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, responding to persistent press reports, recently assured leaders of the YESHA Council that he is convinced Barak does not intend to transfer areas bordering on the Israeli capital to the PA, nor to grant the PA municipal powers in Arab neighborhoods in north Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, at the first session of final-status talks this year, Palestinian negotiators reiterated demands that Israel must allow the "right of return" or pay compensation within a specific timetable to some 3.7 million Palestinian refugees. Israel rejects the idea of Palestinians returning to Israel, but may help fund resettlement of an unlimited number in PA areas. A senior PA official responded, "It is impossible for Arafat to give up on that right, since it is one of the dreams of the Palestinian refugees all around the world."

Negotiators have been holding lengthy, daily meetings - in official talks and via back-channels - to keep to the February 13 cut-off for completing the framework agreement. Both sides admit that deadline is now unrealistic, with each blaming the other for the slow pace. Israel says the PA is refusing to compromise in order to trigger US intervention in the talks, while the Palestinians fault Barak’s absorption in revived Syrian talks.

Then, suddenly, Barak confronted a boycott by Damascus on the Syrian track, and quickly arranged a surprise pre-dawn huddle with Arafat before the PA chairman left for his meeting at the White House. Barak and Arafat reportedly agreed to accelerate the negotiations and are considering a new deadline, a month or two ahead, for the framework agreement.

The meeting was held, in part, due to Palestinian complaints Barak has not given a mandate for making compromises to his delegations in either the formal or informal channels. Arafat was upset further after learning through press reports that Barak was postponing by up to three weeks the third interim pullback from 6.1% of Judea/Samaria, originally scheduled to take place the same day Arafat was due in Washington. The delay took the PA leader by surprise, and Barak sought to clear the air - saying the lack of notification was an "accident" - before Arafat took his complaint to Clinton. In any event, Barak committed to implementing all interim withdrawals in the coming weeks regardless of whether the February deadline is met. Once complete, the Palestinians will control almost 50% of Judea/Samaria, including 98% of its Arab population, going into intensive final-status talks.

The Jerusalem issue also came up in discussions, with Barak reportedly telling Arafat not to expect a hand-over of Abu Dis - which lies less than a mile from the southwest corner of the Temple Mount - in the upcoming withdrawal. Arafat apparently has not conceded on the issue, since it enhances his option of declaring statehood at any time.

TIME FOR TRADE-OFFS: In his meeting with Clinton, Arafat complained about the lack of progress on final-status issues - including Jerusalem, refugees and settlements - faulting Barak for being absorbed in the revived Syrian talks. He pleaded for immediate American intervention so the Oslo process can be completed during Clinton’s tenure, as well as US backing of his right to declare a state.

Palestinian leaders say they are preparing to declare statehood as early as next month, and will convene the PLO’s Central Council on February 2 to discuss giving Arafat the "green light" to declare statehood the same day or soon thereafter. A number of nations, including European Union members, Russia and Japan, have committed to Arafat to recognize such a decision at once.

While Clinton has voiced support for the right of the Palestinians "to decide their own fate on their own land," his Administration continues to view the issue as one to be decided in direct negotiations with Israel. Although Barak has not expressly objected to Palestinian statehood, a unilateral declaration could spell trouble, as Israeli public opinion is already wary of Barak’s moves on the Syrian track and could stiffen in the face of Palestinian defiance.

The responses Arafat received to his list of grievances and demands may not have been exactly what he wanted to hear, as both Clinton and Albright told him he needs to show some give-and-take in order to meet the February deadline, trying to persuade Arafat that now was the time for compromise. Clinton continued to reassure him the Syrian talks would not take precedent over the Palestinian track, going out of his way to note that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement was "at the core" of a comprehensive Middle East peace. But Clinton also realizes his time in office is short and US officials suggest he could easily decide to concentrate on the less-complex Syrian track, where Assad seems more prone to some fast bargaining. In that case, the bench would only get harder for Arafat.

Upon his return to Gaza, Arafat and Barak have committed to begin intensive negotiations on the framework agreement, with US Mideast envoy Dennis Ross on hand to assist. Albright also may visit the region in early February, after attending the resumed multilateral Madrid-format talks in Moscow, or later in the month. It is a crowded peace agenda - a crowded playing field.


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